Thursday, July 23, 2009
Woody Allen, a comedian beloved by lefties everywhere, once said that, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Too bad that so many of his fans seem to think that eighty percent is enough when it comes to the culture war. Two stories that caught my eye this morning illustrate what I mean.
In the first, C. August names the issue clearly when he discusses the political rise of fundamentalists in Portland, Oregon, a city with a reputation for being so far to the left that one USA Today blogger he cites, "likened the Portland ethos to a disease, worrying ... about it 'metastasizing' to other parts of the country." (Conservatives tend to equate collectivism and skepticism with secularism. This is mistaken at best because both: (1) Collectivism neither exclusively nor necessarily follows from secularism; and (2) Skepticism and uncertainty are not the only alternative to religious faith. That said, the dominant philosophical outlook among secularists is skepticism and most secularists are leftists. I am, myself, neither a skeptic nor a collectivist, but an atheist and a capitalist. It is important to note further that atheism only describes my position regarding the question of the existence of God. It does not describe what I do hold to be true.)
It should not be surprising that the moral vacuum created by the nihilism of the left--the "city's secularism and skepticism" noted by the author--is driving people to the only alternative they know of: Christian altruism. That the progressives in this example are already gleefully practicing altruists, added to the fact that man requires moral standards whether he recognizes that fact or not, means that the denial of any objective moral code by the progressives makes them ripe candidates to be subsumed by their more philosophically consistent brethren. Of course, the Christians don't offer an objective moral code grounded in the facts of reality and the nature of man--only rational egoism is such an objective moral code--but because progressives deny the existence of objective truth to begin with... [bold added]The secularists are certainly there in droves, but they're losing the culture war precisely because they have nothing to offer as a viable alternative to religious dogma. Most of them accept the altruism and collectivism of religion by default. Religion preaches these, too, but claims to offer certainty and standards -- two things possible and necessary for a proper human life.
We see this problem on a different scale in the lament of a "humanist" father that his children are asking him questions that presuppose the existence of God and that there seem not to be very many books around to help his children reach adulthood with a secular perspective:
... Are there any children's books, I wondered, that directly address religious questions from a humanistic point of view? Not necessarily an anti-Bible, but a strong alternative or counterpart in a secular key.Before I go on, I want to be clear that I sympathize with author Danny Postel: Helping a child develop a rational, independent mind despite the saturation of the culture with religious influence is exceedingly difficult. (And even if one does his best, human beings have free will. A child still also has to choose to think.)
I called a friend of mine, who works for a humanist charity and is a parent too, feeling sure he would have some sage advice. His response surprised me. Not only did he not know of any good humanist children's books, he said, he didn't like the idea of such a thing. Rather than attempt to counter-indoctrinate kids with explicitly anti-religious messages, he argued, far better simply to expose them to the widest range of reading as possible - weren't Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss essentially humanistic? - and expose them to the manifold religions and philosophies in the world in order to nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the Universe, and help them view religion in a comparative context. The antidote I was seeking, he suggested, was to be found in books of evolution and science fiction, not didactic manifestos. [bold added]
That said, the very premises that govern most secular people -- See the bold above. -- cause them to see the issue as either indoctrination or providing no guidance at all. There is nothing wrong with reading about many religious traditions, but what good is it if the child has no concept of rationality? Or no standard by which to judge these traditions?
That Postel gets hung up on relatively unimportant content -- various religions and whether there is a God -- rather than concerning himself with how to teach his children how to think is important here. This premature concern tells me that he himself is crippled by the skepticism he extols, by the idea that certainty is impossible to man. The fact is that human consciousness, like anything else in existence, has a specific nature, and so functions in a specific way (i.e., by operating logically on sensory input and the concepts formed therefrom).
There are many reasons to be concerned about the cultural influence of religion, but whether a child believes (or thinks he believes) in God is among the least of these. If a child learns the proper method of dealing with such questions (and that method is generally applicable to all questions), he will be able to take care of himself. But one who rejects certainty as such will both fail to appreciate this fact and thus make religion seem more attractive to his children.
For example, saying something like, "Many people think that there is a God, but I don't," is fine, but it is just a start, and what one says (and teaches explicitly or demonstrates) in such situations is crucial. Unfortunately, Postel falls right into a trap of his own skeptical making:
"First, Theo, your question presumes that Jesus was God," I responded. "Many people, like mommy, believe he was, but many others don't. It also presumes that there is a God - we don't know for sure that there is." "I think there is," he retorted. "There may very well be a God, Theo. But not everyone agrees on that - there are many people who doubt there is a God. We might never know for sure if there is or not," I told him. "When we die we'll know," he came back. "Maybe," I said. "But maybe not."If Postel is, as I suspect, a typical skeptic, all claims to knowledge are, to him, unwarranted and, as such, equivalent to religious faith. Furthermore, he would not see any consistent connection between perceptual knowledge and abstractions. This could explain why it seems not to occur to him to ask something like, "How do you know that Jesus is God?" (And if he saw such a connection, he would also realize that this is the first part of a line of questioning that will quickly cause young Theo to run out of ground to stand on.)
In addition to not understanding how to deal with (or demonstrate what is wrong with) arbitrary claims, an improper understanding of concept-formation on Postel's part could also account for his immediately attacking his son's premises rather than keeping the conversation on an appropriate level of abstraction for a child. His children may or may not be old enough to discuss such an issue, but no child is too young to learn that if he wants to say something is true, he ought to be prepared to back himself up with facts.
Postel's children may or may not be independent enough to begin to question religion on their own and they may or may not encounter a thinker like Ayn Rand during their intellectual development, but Postel's own philosophy is forcing him to leave many things to chance that he does not have to.
Worse, he may, with his haphazard, indiscriminate pedagogical approach and discomfort with what he takes to be certainty, even cause his children to have an incorrect idea of what being certain or rational or secular can and ought to mean. He risks making faith look like the shortest (or only) path to knowledge as they reach young adulthood, and are actively seeking guidance on philosophical issues in general and ethical questions in particular. Which religion, if they take it seriously enough, will not matter.
We have seen this before and we will see it again. If eighty percent of success is showing up, then the rest is knowing how to win. And the first part of that is knowing that you can know. Otherwise, you might as well show up for a ball game without even wearing a uniform and gape while the referee records a forfeit.
PS: It is important to note that secularism is properly only a position regarding a common belief and is not, as such, a coherent view of the world. Common cultural baggage aside, there is a need to go beyond simply opposing religion. It is not enough just to be a secularist. One must also offer an alternative to religion on every type of question it attempts to address. The fact that leftists are the largest fraction of secularists both obscures this fact and makes the position good polemical fodder for many less-than-forthright religious opponents.